The intriguing history of folded coins

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11 August 2020
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Folding coins has its roots in a variety of spiritual beliefs and superstitions and, as Richard Kelleher of the Fitzwilliam Museum reveals, more recent discoveries suggest the practice was more widespread than we first thought

In the early 1290s a Welshman named William Cragh, charged with arson and thirteen counts of homicide, was condemned to death by William de Briouze, the marcher lord of Gower in South Wales. Cragh’s hanging took place in November 1291 on a hill outside Swansea Castle.

The execution was not routine as the gallows collapsed and he had to be strung up again. His body was removed to a nearby house, where later, miraculously, he showed signs of life and eventually recovered well enough to live for at least another fifteen years.

The account of the execution and ‘resurrection’ of Cragh is one of a few documented cases which describes in detail the circumstances around the votive act of folding a coin. 

Saintly everyday objects 

Much useful evidence comes from miracle collections, meticulously recorded by clerks at saints’ shrines across Britain. Many of these have been published and provide compelling evidence for some of the ways in which everyday material objects acquired saintly association.

The most detailed account of the folding of coins comes from the papal commission of 1307 which details William Cragh’s hanging. Coins, along with candles, were the most commonly devoted objects at medieval shrines.

Why were coins folded?

The overriding concept in coin folding is one of a transaction involving the removal of one ‘earthly’ thing for the acquisition, or at least hope of acquiring, some ‘heavenly’ benefit.

The transaction incorporated a ritualised act which changed the material aspects of the coin from a secular currency object to a spiritual one. It is by no means certain that the folded coins in the corpus were all pilgrim-vowed objects that failed to arrive at the ascribed shrine.

Documentary evidence for the folding of pennies for the health of animals or the avoidance of other misfortunes suggests the possibility that, while always seeking saintly intervention, coins were offered for reasons not specified by the records and in places other than at a church, a point reinforced by the single find evidence.